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Focus your mind by . . . doodling?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010; C10

Presidents are big doodlers. Clockwise from top left, John F. Kennedy drew sailboats and Theodore Roosevelt doodled misbehaving children. Lyndon Johnson drew weird spaceships, and Herbert Hoover's doodles were geometric shapes.

Do you doodle?

Almost everyone has taken pencil to paper and scratched out a cutesy swirl or kooky cartoon in the margins. Doodling is fun, and some of the world's most famous leaders have been avid doodlers, including Ronald Reagan and many other presidents.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a known doodler, too. Some of the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci, considered one of the greatest inventors and artists in history, began with a doodle.

Yet today, doodling doesn't get much respect. Most people think that when someone's doodling, they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing: listening.

But is that true? Experts increasingly say that doodling actually helps people focus and think more clearly.

If you've ever been stuck in a long class (or, for grown-ups, in a long meeting), you know that sometimes it becomes difficult to pay attention. Your mind wanders, and you start thinking about something else, such as your upcoming soccer game. This is when you are most likely to start doodling, which is why people tend to think that doodling means people aren't listening.

But research on doodling and how it affects the brain has shown that doodling can actually help your brain stay engaged. A study published last year in a major psychology journal showed that people who doodled while listening to a list of names remembered 29 percent more than people who weren't doodling!

Sunni Brown helps people learn how to organize large amounts of information in a visual way, using graphics and pictures, so they understand it better and remember more. She encourages her students to make casual scribbles whenever they feel like it. She's writing a book about doodling.

"Doodling is never mindless," Brown said. Rather, when kids doodle in class, it often means they are trying to check back in. "It's their body's way of getting somewhat back into the reality of where they're sitting."

So the next time you find your attention is slipping away, why not draw a little doodle? It just might get your head back in the game.

- Margaret Webb Pressler

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